FAA investigates reports of low-flying jet

[ Century Center ]The Federal Aviation Administration and China Airlines are both looking into reports that a Boeing 747 flew dangerously close to a Honolulu high-rise building Saturday morning. The story, reported by KITV and The Associated Press, was picked up by newspapers around the world. But China Airlines spokesman Roger Han told the Taiwan News that there was nothing unusual about the weekly flight’s approach that day — a fact he said had since been tentatively confirmed by the FAA.

An FAA spokesman also told The Honolulu Advertiser that China Airlines Flight 18 from Tokyo was about a mile off course, and did stray inland. Large aircraft generally stay over water.

The spokesman, Allen Kenitzer, noted that the pilot was apparently flying normally under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) rather than using instruments, allowing a greater degree of discretion, but had followed the direction of air traffic controllers. Kenitzer would not speculate on why the jumbo jet had passed over land.

Residents of Century Center, a 41-story business and residential tower located across from the Hawaii Convention Center at the intersection of Kalakaua Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard, told KITV (ABC) the plane had come distressingly close to their building. One woman, who lived on the 21st floor, said she could see passengers through the plane’s windows. Another said the plane’s wing passed directly over the building’s lower recreation deck and parking structure.

But the airline said the plane was flying at at least 1,300 feet as it made its approach to Honolulu International Airport. The Boeing 747, one of the largest jumbo jets in regular commercial service, may have looked closer than it really was.

The report has since prompted other Waikiki residents to say they were surprised by the plane’s proximity. And state officials, including Gov. Linda Lingle, have said they are concerned about the alleged incident, and many are citing it as an example of Honolulu’s vulnerability to terrorism.

Both the FAA and China Airlines report that they will investigate the matter further, but that definitive findings will not be available for serveral weeks.

A China Airlines spokesman interviewed Sunday on MAC TV — a Taiwanese government-run satellite TV network — said the pilots will be questioned when they fly back to Taiwan this week. He also said high winds in excess of 50 knots were partially to blame.

The alleged fly-by occurred during kona winds, a weather condition common in the winter where the tradewinds are replaced by winds from the southeast. Kona winds require airplanes to come into Honolulu from the east — along the south shore of O`ahu past Waikiki and downtown Honolulu — instead of their usual approach from the west, off the more rural Ewa plains.

The building, built in 1978 at 1750 Kalakaua Avenue, stands 350 feet high, with a large broadcasting tower that reaches another 90 or so feet skyward.

Including the tower, Century Center is among the tallest buildings in Honolulu, but otherwise is the same height as several other buildings in the city. Indeed, between Century Center and the airport stand the Nauru Towers and One Waterfront Towers, which are about 70 feet and 50 feet taller respectively.

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